The father of puppetry in Ireland
Eugene Lambert, who died on Monday aged 81, created magic for generations of children with Wanderly Wagonand was hugely influential for puppetry in Ireland
IT WAS the most unusual wagon you ever saw, a magical red wooden wagon that could fly to anywhere in the universe, and the man who drove it for many years was Eugene Lambert.
Wanderly Wagon, one of RTÉ’s most beloved children’s series, first hit our television screens in 1967 and over its 15-year run, Lambert’s character O’Brien became one of its most beloved, though he was also the creator of its puppet stars, including the cloth dog Judge, Mr Crow and Sneaky Snake.
Lambert, who died late on Monday night in his Dublin home, aged 81, was a puppeteer first and foremost, and before he ever hitched himself to Wanderly Wagon, he had made his name with a travelling ventriloquist show starring a dummy called Finnegan, while also holding down a job repairing fridges.
It was on this cabaret circuit that Sligo-born Lambert and actor Bill Golding first crossed paths, “He was a practical joker,” recalls Golding. “He pulled off a great joke once that proved how easy it was to get a driver’s licence here, because he actually got a drivers’ licence for his dummy Finnegan, for one Irish pound. It was a practical joke that he couldn’t resist.”
Golding and Lambert went on to work together on Wanderly Wagon, where Golding played Rory, and although Golding left the series and handed over the wagon reins to Lambert in 1974, he still recalls the puppeteer as a dedicated professional.
“He was totally dedicated to his art,” says Golding, who emphasised Lambert’s gift with the children that made up the bulk of Wanderly Wagon’s audience. “He was the fall guy, and the fun-loving member of the programme, and the kids loved him . . . he was always great with kids, always marvellous, that was his forte.”
Actor Frank Kelly, who voiced Sneaky Snake and played the evil Doctor Astro, as well as writing a number of the episodes, recalls a man with a great sense of humour, as well as “very particular professional standards”. These standards extended beyond RTÉ to Ireland’s first puppet theatre, the Lambert Puppet Theatre which he set up in Monkstown in 1972. The Lambert association with RTÉ continued, however, with the creation of another lovable children’s television character, Bosco, who was voiced and operated by Lambert’s daughter Paula.
Paying tribute to his involvement with the national broadcaster, RTÉ Director-General Cathal Goan released a statement lauding Lambert’s “remarkable creative and public Irish career.”
“Eugene would have been distinctive for his skills if he was a master puppeteer alone. But his aptitude for comedy, character and drama led him and his family to forge a body of work and give an amount of pleasure that was unique and memorable,” said Goan.
Countless Irish children learned to cross the road from the Wanderly Wagondog Judge via the Safe Cross Code or how to count in Irish from Bosco and are witnesses to his legacy, as the man who introduced generations to the magic of puppets.
“He has left the whole art of puppetry for Ireland,” says Kelly. “He went abroad and played all over the world, did shows with his puppets and picked up techniques and friendships and contacts with other puppeteers, and he leaves all this behind him for anyone else aspiring to puppetry. There was nobody else before, he was the one. He would be the father of the whole thing in Ireland.”
Lambert was also the father of 10 children, all of whom have worked in the arts in some capacity, with five of his children – Miriam, Paula, Noel, Liam and Conor – following him into puppetry. His eldest daughter Judy has a model-making business, while Gene is a painter, Stephen, now deceased, was involved in theatre, David is a sculptor and Jonathon, also deceased, was a mime artist who trained with Marcel Marceau.
“The whole family grew up with puppets all around us. He had a huge influence on us all. And every member of the family ended up in the arts in one way or another,” says Miriam Lambert, who was one of the founding members of Dublin’s International Puppet Festival, which was inspired by her father’s work.
“It was a fantasy world we grew up in . . . I thought that everybody’s life was like that, I knew no different. It was like growing up in a circus family.”
Her pride in her father and his legacy is echoed in the next generation of Lamberts, his 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, many of whom have found themselves on similar career paths.
Granddaughter Medb Lambert works in theatre, with puppets featuring in much of her work. “I feel like puppets have a front-door key to the emotional landscape in a way that a lot of other arts media don’t, and if Eugene hadn’t been a puppeteer . . . that wouldn’t have been something I’d even have thought about,” she acknowledges. “I think most of us [grandchildren] would say that . . . he was a puppeteer first and foremost.
“What he did was how he lived. I suppose a lot of us live that way too, so we have learned from that in a way, and have this passion. It was also a point of connection in later years. It was what we would have spoken about together. He was really encouraging as I was developing as an artist.”
For Medb, his revered status in Ireland following the success of Wanderly Wagonwas a source of great pride. “Without a doubt I was proud of him. I have such memories of him being around at my first Holy Communion, and going to a hotel or restaurant, and you’d get this lovely treatment. He was so loved.”
His constant companion throughout was his wife Mai, and many of those with fond memories of Lambert find it difficult to separate them from their recollections of the woman who married him 59 years ago.
“It would be churlish of anybody to speak of him and not salute his wife Mai,” says Golding. “There are no words to describe the hard work, the supportiveness, the unassumingness and the fact that she was involved at every step of the way, in every sense, with Eugene, and he appreciated that.”
His talent touched audiences around the world, and he counted among his friends the late singer Michael Jackson, who befriended him after a concert in Dublin in 1992.
According to publicist Gerry Lundberg “he will be missed, because what he gave to Ireland was unique.” Having created such memorable characters as well as the country’s first puppet theatre, he put Ireland on the international map. “It was only somebody with his tenacity and his talent that could do it.”
Though he will be mourned by many, his legacy remains. “People often say at a time like this, it’s the end of an era. And it’s almost a cliché, but that’s not the case, and it would be a disservice to Eugene to use it, because his legacy is secure in the hands of his very talented, very hardworking family and associates,” says Golding, who adds that wherever Lambert is, “That’ll keep a smile on his face.”